Build it and they will come: Scotland and independence after the election

To survive, the SNP needs to focus on the politics of the long-term and develop a truly ambitious strategy, which so far it has neglected to do.

Gerry Hassan
22 June 2017

Nicola Sturgeon by Ninian Reid. Flickr. Some rights reserved.The 2017 election marks the end of an era of Scottish politics.

The immediate shadow of the 2014 indyref dominating everything is over. As is the age of the big tent, omnipotent SNP carrying all before it. The re-emergence of the Scottish Tories and the stalling of the retreat of Scottish Labour has confounded many nationalists.

Not only is the post-2014 indyref environment over, so too is politics defined by the constant invoking of Thatcher and Blair. No matter the depths Blair fell to, firstly, the two aren’t completely comparable, and second, Blair was once massively popular in Scotland – the 1997-99 period being one such example. Plus the Blair Government’s for all their faults did do a host of positive things: such as legislate for a Scottish Parliament (not that he really believed in it, but that’s another story).

The SNP ‘won’ this election in that they got the most seats and votes – the criteria for judging success. But the party lost 476,867 votes, 13.1% of their vote, and 21 seats out of 56 – which cannot be called by any standards much of a success. The SNP imperial age is over and in some places there is denial and refusal to accept reality, and even anger and wanting to kick out at the usual culprits (BBC, MSM, etc, everybody basically but the SNP).

The context of 2017

The SNP ran an awful campaign. It lacked any clear message, spine or purpose. It seemed to fall back in the last few days on the ridiculous line: ‘If you agree with Jeremy Corbyn vote SNP’.

This is a bad tactic and bad strategy. 

This is a bad tactic and bad strategy. The tactics were terrible. Derek Mackay has now run several inept campaigns running the 2012 and 2017 local elections and doesn’t inspire with his political touch and intelligence. But much more is wrong than how to run an effective campaign ergo the steadfast belief in the brilliance of the SNP ‘machine’ – a myth which isn’t based on any facts.

The chimera of the SNP assuming it occupies the centre-left and social democratic ground of Scotland while disparaging its main opponents with disdain is over.

In reality the SNP isn’t that much of a centre-left, social democratic party. Instead, it has at best been a defensive progressive party, holding off the worst aspects of the tearing apart of the social contract we have witnessed down south.

But often that hasn’t actually been that progressive here. For example, defending the entitlements of health, education and law professions, and never daring to invoke ‘public sector reform’, isn’t that radical. It is actually quite conservative and going with the grain of the vested interests who have historically defined civil society.

Instead, the mantra has been that for ten years the SNP has tried to be all things to all men, women and citizens of Scotland. A nod to social democracy here, a wink at the landed interests there, and at all times keep the business community on board. This has been a mélange of social democratic sentiment and neo-liberalism – rather like New Labour before the scandals and wars – but with much less detail in the former. The deception was that we weren’t meant to notice, mind and criticise this until last Thursday.

Salmond was explicitly this mixture. Sturgeon was meant to talk left, be more about detail and more straight dealing. All we have got has been the practice of the latter, and little else.

The myths of the SNP have to be held up for the threadbare stories many of them are.

The myths of the SNP have to be held up for the threadbare stories many of them are. Thus, we have the line punted by some SNP media sympathisers that the Corbyn manifesto was a tribute to the SNP in its plagiarism and copying of universal benefits.

But this isn’t the case. Corbyn’s manifesto – which wasn’t perfect and articulated a Labour radical nostalgia – put back on the political agenda a host of popular left-wing policies. Some of these such as nationalisation and standing up to corporate capitalism, are policies the SNP has never ever gone remotely near.

The SNP in their decade in office have been silent on the macro-issues of crony capitalism – apart from Salmond’s eulogies to Fred Goodwin and RBS pre-crash – which were as embarrassing and wrong-headed as Gordon Brown’s. Indeed, there is one kind of nationalism the SNP have barely ever touched in the last decade and that is economic nationalism: talking about ownership, control and takeovers. The only exception over the last decade was Salmond’s populist campaigning on Diageo’s decision to close their Kilmarnock plant.

The myopia of centrist ministers like Humza Yousaf calling the recent SNP manifesto ‘left-wing’ indicates a political class which has no real understanding of what the term left-wing means, and who don’t do substantive policies – instead being content to be managers and administrators of the embryonic Scottish state – nothing more and nothing less.

It is this big picture which matters most. Tellingly, Nicola Sturgeon seems to have burned through much of the goodwill and energy of the two and a half year indyref campaign; and in two and a half years as First Minister, has little tangible achievements. That is a tragedy because Sturgeon has many qualities as a campaigner and communicator, but so far she has shown herself as missing critical elements of leadership, and lacking a sense of strategic direction.

There is the issue of the SNP’s swollen membership of 120,000. This was meant to provide the party with a huge advantage over its opponents. It hasn’t so far delivered. 

There is the issue of the SNP’s swollen membership of 120,000. This was meant to provide the party with a huge advantage over its opponents. It hasn’t so far delivered. It has proven across large swathes of the country in the recent campaign to be an elusive and almost invisible army. There were across numerous Glasgow and West of Scotland constituencies, little obvious door-to-door canvassing and campaigning. This pattern has been developing for a while. It was evident in the recent local elections. And in last year’s SNP depute leadership contest which had a derisory 34% turnout.

It is this which provides a backdrop to public concerns about the style of Sturgeon’s leadership. This isn’t a sudden issue which has just emerged, but has been building for a long time. For example, late last year, myself and James Mitchell’s book, ‘SNP Leaders’ contained Mike Russell’s concerns about the culture of groupthink at the top of the party, as well as Mandy Rhodes’ portrait of Sturgeon which painted a picture of an isolated leadership – with major decisions often made only by herself with her husband, Peter Murrell, Chief Executive of the SNP.

Sturgeon’s leadership is a mix of command and control and uber-caution. The first element has seen the slow atrophying of the political intelligence of the party that first got it into a dominant position. The party leadership have swallowed the stories of their own wisdom and hype which is always a bad sign. This has been combined with a caution and even inaction in government which hasn’t helped matters. This has slowly allowed the SNP to lose the initiative it had, and find itself in the unusual place of being defined by its opponents, and in particular, Ruth Davidson’s abrasive and energetic campaigning – which has been the sort of robust challenge the SNP haven’t been used to and Scottish Labour have not given them for many a year.

All of this has to be seen in the light of a party which has willfully refused to engage in a major appraisal of the reasons why the 2014 indyref was lost. Or indeed spent any time putting together a new vision. Instead, the SNP leadership and official line became that the combination of the power and reach of the 56, Brexit, the footsoldiers of the swollen membership, and the power of the abstract idea of independence would be enough. These factors would take independence over the winning line – by a mixture of charm, cajoling, hectoring and impatience. It wasn’t a great strategy. Indeed, it was a win ugly approach and it has now been discredited. It was never a good approach or good politics.

The limits of the SNP victory on 37%

For those who say stay calm as the SNP won, a little closer examination of the results is needed. The SNP won 37% of the vote. This was the biggest share by far, but in two years across two Westminster elections, Scotland has shifted from a dominant one party system to multi-party politics. It is also telling that some SNP and indy supporters are complaining about the three pro-union parties engaging in tactical voting to defeat the SNP. That’s what happens under FPTP; is something Scotland has seen many times such as against the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s; and is what occurs to incumbent parties.

Beneath the SNP’s 37% of the vote and 35 seats there is fragility.

Beneath the SNP’s 37% of the vote and 35 seats there is fragility. Nine of the SNP’s 35 seats have majorities under 1,000: four with majorities under 100 - Fife North East (2), Perth and North Perthshire (21), Glasgow South West (60), Glasgow East (75). A total of eighteen – more than half the party’s seats have majorities under 2,500. Not one of the six SNP Glasgow seats looks impregnable. The only formidable SNP majorities look like Dundee West and East, Kilmarnock and Loudoun and Ross, Skye and Lochaber - the only seats with majorities over 5,000. In not one of the SNP’s 35 seats did the party win over half the vote, making the party very vulnerable to continued tactical voting.

The party support has shifted westward. It has lost huge swathes of support in the North East and Perthshire – areas where it has long been dug in but which have now returned to their traditional Tory allegiance. This was always the implication of the shift from the Salmond to Sturgeon leadership – but the party hasn’t gained any radical edge as a result, and doesn’t look that secure in large parts of the west. Another worry must be that the much vaunted democratic spirit and engagement of the indyref seems already to have exhausted itself: with turnout of 66.4% down 4.7% on two years ago and below the UK figure. Turnout in many Glasgow and West of Scotland constituencies was back to the shocking levels of pre-indyref.

Where does this leave us? The politics of just blindly following everything the SNP does and says because they believe in independence was always a bad option. Effectively it just gave the SNP leadership a free pass and has produced poor government and politics.

Secondly, the SNP and independence aren’t synonymous. To treat as such – as some true believers and fanatical unionists do – has not been very helpful to either cause. Thirdly, there is a problem in the SNP with leadership. It has engaged in micro-control without being prepared post-indyref to openly talk about hard decisions on independence, the choices explicit in government, or act in a mature, long term way talking to the nation. Instead, everything has been tactical and about positioning.

Fourth, the rise of the SNP in recent years and all its related excitement has distracted from the narrow range of politicians who have come to the fore. Despite the SNP 56 and large Holyrood group there isn’t a surfeit of talent at the top. There is an absence of campaigning politicians prepared to graft and do the hard work on an issue – Alison Thewliss on the rape clause being a rare exception. The party needs a culture of encouraging politicians to nurture and champion issues and causes, and have less of the TV pundit Nationalists of the likes of the now departed John Nicolson and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh.

Fifth, there is the wider culture and psychology of independence supporters. There are many shades and gradations of opinions, but one which has done the SNP and independence no good has been the over the top partisanship, blinkeredness and intolerance of its most fanatical supporters. The worst examples of this have done lasting damage to the SNP and independence – allowing them to be painted in the most derogatory styles. They have to be stood up to and told to stand down and find some other vent for their misanthropic sentiments.

Sixth, show more interest in policy and after ten years in office encourage and aid some alternative centres of power. The SNP and independence desperately needs at least one and preferably more than one independent, self-government supporting think tank which can compliment the work of the likes of Common Weal and others.

Finally, this was the fifth Westminster post-devolution election. The mainstream media didn’t have a good election in informing voters. The two BBC and STV leader debates, for example, were both dominated by devolved issues and the record of the SNP at Holyrood, to the exclusion of Westminster issues. Is it beyond broadcasters to structure discussions with explicit sections on devolved and reserved issues? This wasn’t a conspiracy as this is how they covered elections under Labour too, but it probably hurts the SNP more who already suffer in such elections from a Westminster squeeze. One SNP voter said to me during the campaign: ‘This is a contest just between Labour and Tories isn’t it? Am I allowed to vote SNP?’.

The SNP have only been in office for ten years. The Labour Party dominated Scottish politics for fifty years. 

Critically, there is the question of whether the SNP can change in office, or need to lose power at Holyrood to change. Funnily enough this is an argument Scottish Labour used to have with itself when it was in office – with senior ministers believing they could renew while being in office in perpetuity.

The SNP have only been in office for ten years. The Labour Party dominated Scottish politics for fifty years. It hasn’t taken long for the sheen to go off the SNP. How it responds will tell whether this becomes a major crisis and retreat, or one which it can manage and bounce back from.

Underlying all of the above is the missing ingredient in the SNP’s politics and independence offer. There is no coherent national project about Scotland’s future. The party has invited us to just trust them and believe everything will be alright the other side of independence. It was never good enough. This is transparent now.

An independence referendum looks extremely unlikely for the next few years. That gives the SNP and Scottish politics a breathing space to develop a different course. It should be one which is based on the principle of ‘Build it and they will come’. Mark out the territory, policies and detail of a self-governing and independent Scotland and start out in its direction of travel. But that requires a different SNP and leadership which has until now shown no interest in a politics of the long-term or of developing a truly ambitious strategy.

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